Coronavirus (COVID-19): The impact on courts Contents


1.This report examines the impact of Covid-19 on the courts and tribunals in England and Wales. The Committee pays tribute to everyone in the justice system who has enabled courts and tribunals to continue to function during this extraordinary period. On 22 May, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, told the Committee that the decision was taken in the early stages of the pandemic “to keep the wheels of justice turning”.2 That has required an incredible effort from all involved to provide the service available while the most stringent public health measures were in force from 23 March 2020.

2.The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC, told the Committee on 23 June 2020 that “the story of the crisis has been the ramping up the scale of the use of technology”.3 The Lord Chancellor is right to be satisfied that technology has enabled “justice to continue to operate”.4 However, behind this narrative, there are important lessons for the justice system to learn from the crisis caused by Covid-19. The Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chancellor and Susan Acland-Hood, the Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunal Service, have all emphasised that each jurisdiction has adapted differently. It is, though, a matter of concern that some of the most public-facing elements of the justice system—the magistrates’ courts, the Crown Court and the family courts—appear to have fared the worst.

3.Even in those elements of the system which have operated at close to normal levels—for example some tribunal jurisdictions—lessons are there to be learned for the future, in terms, for example, of the practical impact of technology on access to justice or for how change is implemented in the justice system. In areas where technology has not been as helpful, such as jury trials, the crisis has exacerbated pre-existing concerns about the capacity, administration and infrastructure of the justice system in England and Wales.

4.Recognition of the significant achievements of the justice system in responding to Covid-19 should not obscure the scale of the challenges facing the courts. The number of outstanding cases in the magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court is a pressing concern.

5.Some of the changes made to courts and tribunals since March 2020 are likely to have long-term implications (see Box 1 for an outline of some major changes that have occurred since the pandemic began). Many were unavoidably subject to limited scrutiny and debate before they were enacted. It is therefore vital that all those changes made, whether technological or procedural or more fundamental, are now subject to rigorous evaluation. To conduct rigorous evaluation at pace, mechanisms for capturing the impact of reform must be built into the design from the beginning. There are reasons to be concerned that this is not happening as much as it should, which are set out in this Report.

6.We pay tribute to Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service, the Judiciary and the staff who work in the courts of England and Wales for maintaining significant levels of service during the period since March 2020. We commend HMCTS and the judiciary for demonstrating how rapidly change can be successfully made in the delivery of justice across all jurisdictions.

7.One of the clearest lessons of the crisis response since March 2020 has been how quickly the justice system can reform when needed. Her Majesty’s Court and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) will need to continue to deliver change at pace in order to implement the recovery plan which is beginning to take shape. Continuing to do so without the spur of necessary emergency response will be a significant challenge in the long term.

8.We recommend that HMCTS sets out how it intends to evaluate both the practical and qualitative effects of the changes carried out at pace in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, work must be done urgently to identify the effects of increased use of digital technology for the delivery of justice not only on the process and disposal of cases but on the results obtained for those whose cases and hearings have taken place; their perception on the fairness of the proceedings, regardless of outcome; and the barriers to access and understanding that may have arisen for both participants in cases and the wider public, including the media. We invite the Ministry of Justice to set out a timetable for obtaining that essential feedback.

9.We would also warn that changes introduced in response to an emergency should not be regarded as irreversible if they can be demonstrated to have impeded access to justice or resulted in less than optimal outcomes for those whom the justice system exists to serve.

10.In this short report, it is not possible to provide a complete picture of the impact of Covid-19 on courts and tribunals in England and Wales, not least because of the complexity and diversity of jurisdictions. The Committee welcomes the fact that HMCTS is publishing weekly management statistics.5 However, we share frustration expressed by the Lord Chief Justice, and recent reviews of the courts system, at the absence of publicly available data on what is happening day to day. We recognise that the situation is improving but it is vital that as the use of technology increases, the quality of publicly available data improves.

Box 1: Covid-19 and the courts: a timeline

  • 17 March 2020: The Lord Chief Justice announced that “no new trial should start in the Crown Court unless it is expected to last for three days or less. All cases estimated to last longer than three days listed to start before the end of April 2020 will be adjourned”.6
  • 23 March 2020: The Lord Chief Justice announced that jury trials were suspended.7
  • 25 March 2020: The Coronavirus Act 2020, which contained provisions enabling use of technology in courts and tribunals, was enacted.8
  • 27 March 2020: HMCTS announced that the work of courts and tribunals would be consolidated into fewer buildings and that 157 priority court and tribunal buildings would remain open for essential face-to-face hearings. This represents 42% of the 370 Crown, magistrates, county and family courts and tribunals across England and Wales.9
  • 10 April 2020: The Tribunal Procedure (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020, which make temporary changes tribunal procedure, came into force.
  • 10 April 2020: The Employment Appeal Tribunal (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020, which make temporary changes to the employment tribunal’s procedure, came into force.
  • 14 April 2020: The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane announced a two-week rapid consultation on use of remote hearings in the family justice system. The results were published on 6 May 2020.10
  • 14 April 2020: The Criminal Procedure (Amendment No. 2) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, which change the criminal procedure rules to facilitate video link hearings, came into force.
  • 22 April 2020: The Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) published interim findings from its inquiry into the experiences of disabled defendants in the criminal justice system.11 This publication was a response to the rapid increase in the use of technology in the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • 1 May 2020: The Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, commissioned a rapid review of the impact of COVID-19 measures on the civil justice system. The Civil Justice Council and the Legal Education Foundation published the results on 5 June 2020.12
  • 11 May 2020: The Lord Chief Justice announced that a limited number of jury trials would resume in the week beginning 18 May 2020.13
  • 8 June 2020: The Civil Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020, which introduces two new standard fees which are payable for asylum and immigration (non-asylum) cases, came into force.
  • 25 June 2020: The Civil Procedure (Amendment No. 2) (Coronavirus) Rules 2020, which amend Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules 1998 to provide that all possession proceedings are stayed until 25 August 2020, came into force.
  • 1 July 2020: HMCTS published its recovery update in response to the Coid-19 pandemic.14
  • 3 July 2020: HMCTS’ courts and tribunals tracker list stated that there are 288 open courts, 25 staffed courts and 28 suspended courts.15
  • 17 July 2020: HMCTS’ courts and tribunal tracker list states “we are no longer publishing the tracker list as most of our courts and tribunals buildings are now open in line with public health advice”.16
  • 20 July 2020: Jury trials have resumed in 54 Crown Courts.17

4 For information on how other jurisdictions have used remote hearings during the crisis see:; for an account of how Australian courts have used virtual hearings see: Joe McIntyre, Anna Olijnyk and Kieran Pender, Courts and COVID-19: Challenges and Opportunities in Australia, Australian Public Law (4 May 2020)

6 Lord Chief Justice, Coronavirus (COVID-19): Jury trials, message from the Lord Chief Justice (Last accessed 13 July 2020)

8 Coronavirus Act 2020, sections 53–57

10 Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, Remote hearings in the family justice system: a rapid consultation, May 2020

11 Equality and Human Rights Commission, Inclusive justice: a system designed for all: Interim Findings, April 2020

12 The Civil Justice Council and the Legal Education Foundation, The impact of COVID-19 measures on the civil justice system: Report and recommendations, May 2020

13 Courts and Tribunals Judiciary, Jury trials to resume this month (Last accessed 13 July 2020)

14 HMCTS, COVID-19: Update on recovery in courts and tribunals (Last accessed 13 July 2020)

Published: 30 July 2020